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Evans May Be Caught in Dodger Squeeze Play

So, it now appears that major league owners will overlook concerns about Frank McCourt’s highly leveraged proposal to buy the Dodgers and approve him as the new owner during a conference call before the Jan. 31 deadline.

Is this only a formality?

Have the Dodgers been operating under his financial philosophy already this winter, caught in a squeeze play between an owner determined to sell in News Corp. and the Boston real estate developer who is financing his purchase almost entirely with loans?

Well, considering a bat rack of factors, including the numbing reality that the attempt to strengthen the major leagues’ worst offense has been limited to the acquisition of Bubba Trammell and Juan Encarnacion, it would not be a surprise if McCourt point man Corey Busch has been playing more of a Dodger Stadium role than simply supervising the transition.

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It would also not be a surprise, of course, if this baseball winter turns cold in a hurry for General Manager Dan Evans.

Whether McCourt has Oakland A’s General Manager Billy Beane on his speed dial or not, the status of Evans is certain to be one of his first considerations.

For now, six weeks before the start of spring training, Evans continues to insist he has a plan to strengthen the offense and that there are still market options with which to do it.

However, his vague plan seemed to evaporate with the futile pursuit of Nomar Garciaparra.

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Aside from his determination not to trade the promising Edwin Jackson, Greg Miller or Franklin Gutierrez, it is difficult to say what the plan was (is) or where the options are.

Reading again the other day from what has been his off-season script, Evans asked unhappy fans for patience and pointed out how baseball’s calendar has changed, how a market that once ended in December now extends into March.

“There is no way I feel that the off-season is close to being done,” he said. “There are still a lot of players out there who can have a positive effect on a club.”

The list gets shorter every day, however -- and with it, perhaps, Evans’ tenure.

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The cold reality is that the Dodgers of Jan. 11 are weaker than the team that ended the 2003 season on Sept. 28.

There are holes at first base and in the No. 4 spot in the batting order, and there are questions offensively at more than half of the positions.

The National League’s best pitching staff kept the Dodgers competitive last year, but now Kevin Brown is gone from the front of the rotation and Paul Quantrill is gone from the back of the bullpen.

Now, too, there is no indication Evans has the financial freedom he and others in the organization claim he has.

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It is as if McCourt and News Corp. have been satisfied to watch the interest compound on the accumulated savings from the trading of Brown and the departures of Andy Ashby, Brian Jordan, Fred McGriff and Daryle Ward.

Consider that a month of conversation with the agent for Vladimir Guerrero did not go beyond what a club official called exploratory and that Guerrero, arguably the game’s best player, agreed to terms with the Angels on Saturday, , which should be an embarrassment to Evans and his bosses.

Consider as well that two other premier names on that disappearing list of quality free agents -- Greg Maddux and Ivan Rodriguez -- have drawn only cursory inquiries from the Dodgers.

To this point, Evans is not known to have made a meaningful offer to any free agent, and his most serious trade discussions have involved players whose contracts would not have encumbered McCourt and News Corp. beyond the 2004 season.

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Among them: Richie Sexson, Derrek Lee, Magglio Ordonez and Garciaparra.

A person close to the situation reflected on the claim of financial freedom and said:

“Dan is taking the hits [for failing to significantly strengthen the offense], but the reality is that his hands have been tied. He hasn’t been able to make any move that would significantly change the shape of the deal.”

The reference was to the $430-million deal between McCourt and News Corp., which is loaning McCourt half of that amount or more and will retain a significant interest in the club’s bottom line and the new owner’s ability to service a considerable debt.

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Although Major League Baseball may like the idea that one of its big-market teams may be less of a big spender, the uncertain issue of McCourt’s operating resources is a significant concern among player agents and the staff at Dodger Stadium, where the protracted and uncertain ownership situation has further affected what was once one of the industry’s flagship franchises.

For Evans, signed only through 2004, the lingering question is a painful one:

If News Corp. wasn’t going to let him take on money and McCourt wasn’t going to let him spend any, how secure can his future be?

To his credit, he hasn’t made the budget or his job status an issue, nor has he tried to force it by going to either Busch or the lame-duck chairman, Bob Daly, and saying he had to have Guerrero or they could have his job.

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Of course, there aren’t many other GMs who would have the gumption to do that, and Evans certainly knows how that would have played out.

Where he has made his bed is in his refusal to trade any of those three prospects -- Jackson, Miller and Gutierrez.

It has been his line in the sand, and it cost him Brian Giles last July, when his pitching was strong enough to win the division, and it subsequently cost him Sexson, Lee and, to an extent, Ordonez, possibly among others.

Make no mistake, there is considerable merit to Evans’ oft-stated belief that at some point the Dodgers had to put emphasis again on a neglected farm system and the franchise’s long-term viability rather than continuing the costly and mostly elusive bid for short-term success.

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If the philosophy has now relegated Evans himself to the short term, well, he said, “if you have a philosophy, you either have it or you don’t.”

Well, if the general manager truly has a plan to go with the philosophy, he would best implement it soon. The new owner may have a plan of his own.


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